News / Middle East

Syria’s Kurds Play Political Odds between Assad, Erdogan

An estimated 200,000 Syrian Kurds fleeing poverty and civil war have sought refuge in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. These refugees crossed the border at Peshkhabour check point, 260 miles from Baghdad, on August 20, 2013.
An estimated 200,000 Syrian Kurds fleeing poverty and civil war have sought refuge in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. These refugees crossed the border at Peshkhabour check point, 260 miles from Baghdad, on August 20, 2013.
David Arnold
Civil war may have devastated much of Syria over the past two-and-a-half years, but one part of the country – its northeastern Kurdish region – has been relatively unscathed.
 
Last month, however, a flood of nearly 200,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees into the largely autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq raised new fears that Syria’s Kurds are becoming increasingly embroiled in the Middle East’s most violent conflict.  
 
The refugees were fleeing attacks by jihadist groups that attacked Kurdish communities along the Turkish border. Militant groups such as al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, are fighting to control border areas near Turkey because they control vital supply routes.
 
The fighting was also sparked in part by Syrian Kurds trying to form an interim government in the area -- complete with a constitution and a parliament.  The plans unveiled in mid-July by the Democratic Union Party, known as the PYD, led to fighting between PYD-affiliated militias, known as the YPG, and the largest Syrian opposition armed group, the Syrian Free Army. The YPG also fought with jihadi groups like Jabhat al-Nusra.  
 
Turkey takes an interest
 
Now, as Syria’s Kurds are increasingly coming into conflict with the Syrian opposition, they are being courted by regional players like Turkey. As Syria’s Kurds fled by the tens of thousands into northern Iraq, Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, invited PYD’s leader, Saleh Muslim, to Istanbul to discuss Turkey’s faltering efforts to put a peaceful end to its own 29-year Kurdish revolt. The move was seen as a surprise because the PYD is closely affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the Turks consider a terrorist organization.
 
Experts said Muslim and Davutoglu appeared to be negotiating an understanding that will aid Turkey’s pursuit of peace in its eastern Anatolia region. Since Damascus pulled most of its troops from the region last year to bolster efforts to defeat Syria’s rebels elsewhere, PYD militia units have guarded Syria’s pipelines and until recently suppressed anti-Assad protests.
 
“The PYD and Assad work together to secure the oil pipe lines for the regime and to stop anti-regime demonstrations,” said Eva Savelsberg, director of the KurdWatch human right blog and president of the Berlin-based European Center for Kurdish Studies.

But the direction the PYD takes in the name of Syria’s Kurds ultimately depends on their own pursuit of power and on the leadership of Kurdish militants across the border in Turkey, say observers of Kurdish regional affairs.
 
“It’s controlled by the PKK,” said Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a Kurdish affairs analyst writing for Istanbul’s Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, referring to the PYD.
 
Power resides in the militias

Much of the strength of this emerging Kurdish political power comes from the YPG militias who control three enclaves – Afrin, Ayn al-Arab and Hasakah province - along Syria’s northern borders. These enclaves enable them to recruit and levy taxes on oil shipments crossing the Syrian border, where they continue to clash with Jabhat al-Nursa units for nearby border crossings. 
 
The PYD also gained strength from the arrival of PKK cadres who left Turkey in apparent compliance with Turkey’s peace demands.
 
“In the last four weeks a lot of PKK cadres came to Syria,” said Savelsberg. “What the YPG is doing is getting more weapons and more power, possibly to confront Jabhat al-Nusra.”
 
The PYD claims it does not side with the Assad regime or his political opposition. They call it the “third way”, said van Wilgenburg.  “But their rivals accuse them of being close to the regime.”
 
Kurdish politics in Syria cross many borders. Most parties have joined one of four blocks with links to Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq or the PKK in Turkey. Most recently, parties within the Kurdish National Council (KNC), an opposition group to the YPG, have joined with the Istanbul-based exiles of the Syrian National Coalition.  
 
“The PYD is not happy with that,” said van Wilgenburg, “They see it as a coup against their autonomy plan.”
 
“It’s quite complicated,” he said.
 
In a bid to ease tensions the KNC and the YPG recently formed the Kurdish Supreme Committee and both groups are supposed to jointly administer areas under Syrian Kurdish control until elections can be held.  But observers say tensions remain between the two groups. 
 
Who will be PYD's partner?

“I think it’s clear who the bad guys are,” said Savelsberg. “That’s clearly the PKK and the PYD.”
 
“Hardly anyone is ever critical of the PYD,” said Savelsberg. Kurds do not object to YPG’s repressive tactics because some are afraid, she said. Others are silent because “a lot of Kurds have the opinion that being persecuted by Kurds is better than being persecuted by Arabs.”
 
The YPG militias have earned a reputation for destroying community centers, civil society offices and headquarters of the political opposition in the region, said Savelsberg. In June armed YPG forces attacked a street demonstration in Amuda, killing six activists and wounding dozens more, drawing international protest.
 
“The PYD wants people to forget what happened in Amuda, where they kidnapped and killed a lot of activists and lost a lot of sympathy,” said Savelsberg. “They needed to put the focus on someone else and who is the better enemy than Islamists.”
 
The PYD is loyal to Assad “only as long as it is useful for them,” said Savelsberg. “It’s not so much they are supporting the regime. They now want to consolidate their own power. They choose their partners for military strength."

You May Like

HRW: Egypt's Trial of Morsi ‘Badly Flawed’

Human Rights Watch says former Egypt leader's detention without charge for more than three weeks after his removal from office violated Egyptian law; government rejects criticism More

Photogallery Lancet Report Calls for Major Investment in Surgery

In its report published by The Lancet, panel of experts says people are dying from conditions easily treated in the operating room such as hernia, appendicitis, obstructed labor, and serious fractures More

Music Industry Under Sway of Digital Revolution

Millions of people in every corner of the Earth now can enjoy a vast variety and quantity of music in a way that has never before been possible More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populationsi
X
April 24, 2015 10:13 PM
A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

VOA Blogs